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Harvick swoops to conquer at Fontana

Stewart and Hamlin's wish came true on lap 103 when David Gilliland hit the wall, bringing out the second caution of the afternoon. After everyone had pitted, Kyle Busch was in the lead ahead of Brian Vickers, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, so the risky strategy had paid off for Stewart and he was now back in sync. Alas, there was no such good news for Hamlin, who headed for the garage for the #11 to be tended to ... and never came back out again. "It's in the motor, it's smoking now," crew chief Mick Ford gloomily announced. "It looks like the thing is burned up. There's smoke coming up out of the air box."

"Obviously it was another engine failure," said Hamlin, agreeing that it was "disappointing, for sure." The ยข11 team has needed to change engines twice before races this season (Daytona and Las Vegas) but their decision not to do so again here cost them a good race showing and points to a more serious problem with engines at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Back on track, Kyle found Tony Stewart the main threat as racing got under way again. Smoke was quickly up into second and pressing hard but not quite good enough to beat Rowdy just yet. Vickers and Newman contested third and fourth while behind them Kevin Harvick had risen unnoticed to fifth place. Further back, the lower top ten positions were being fought over by the likes of Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard (who had gambled on a two tyre strategy last stop), Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Juan Montoya, Carl Edwards and a much happier Greg Biffle.

The track was still green when the cars started to come in for their next pit stops on lap 138. Kyle had a characteristically flawless pit stop and emerged 6.3s ahead of Stewart in the lead; Stewart set about closing the gap, but it was all looking rather like a done deal at this point. Surely no one could stop Kyle from climbing back to back victories?

But Kyle knows as well as anyone that the first three quarters of the race are merely prelude: as the lap counter ticked over 150, he was determined to keep up the pace and stop anyone getting too close to mount a major threat in the closing laps. Someone like Jimmie Johnson, who was ominously up to fourth place now. Busch and Johnson were soon the fastest cars on the track, and emphatically the men to beat this afternoon.

The final round of pit stops commenced on lap 167 with Kenseth who had been running in sixth. Busch, Stewart and Johnson were in next time around, and in seemed that the cooler conditions as the afternoon turned into early evening were causing Kyle to fret. He complained that the car was tight and needed a chassis adjustment, whereas Johnson couldn't have been happier and described the #48 as free and fast and needing only the requisite tyres and fuel to be good to go - for once, no pit stop fumbles blighting his day.

But Kyle's pit stop had also been flawless and fast and he was once again back out in front when the third yellow of the day came out on lap 172 for a spin by Andy Lally. It was not what Kyle wanted to see - the huge lead he had eked out over the course of the last 64 laps evaporated instantly as the pack closed up once again. Moreover, the other drivers - Stewart, Johnson, Harvick in fourth and Bowyer in fifth - all knew that this restart could be their one and only chance to strike and topple Busch. They couldn't do it - Kyle once again stretched out a lead, although for his part he found he found Stewart and Johnson starting to reel him back in. When finally Busch did start to break away it was Johnson who was best able to stay with him even as they started to drop Stewart, Harvick, Bowyer and Newman.

But the race was interrupted one final time by a caution, on lap 186 when Bobby Labonte hit the wall at turn 2, the #47 even subsequently catching fire as Labonte tried to bring it back to pit road. That delayed the opening of pit road, and with only ten laps left in the race the six leaders all decided that the right call was to stay out - while Matt Kenseth from seventh led others to pit lane in pursuit of the critical edge offered by a couple of fresh, sticky new tyres.

The green came out on lap 191. Kyle still had the speed to see off Johnson, who was right on his rear bumper, while Stewart's pace was shot and he plunged out of the top ten to be replaced in the top three by his team mate Ryan Newman.

It seemed to be all about Kyle and Jimmie: Jimmie went low but Kyle was too fast on the outside; Jimmie tried again and on lap 198 made the pass stick. He was actually going to steal the win: sure, Matt Kenseth was on fresher tyres and thundering toward them, but surely he was too far back to make it by the chequered flag. And if Kenseth couldn't make it, then - well, there was no one else who had displayed anything like the raw speed required to upset Johnson's day, surely? Okay, Kevin Harvick was suddenly popping up into third and closing fast, but ...




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Kevin Harvick - Richard Childress Racing   [pic credit: NASCAR/Getty]
Cole Whitt on track at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California for testing on March 21, 2014. (Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS finished 2nd, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS finished 7th Saturday, April 12, 2014 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. Earnhardt Jr. is 4th, Gordon is 1st in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Teammate Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS won. (Photo Credit: HHP/Alan Marler for Chevrolet)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS finished 1st, Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Great Clips Chevrolet SS finished 37th Saturday, April 12, 2014 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. Harvick  is 22nd, Kahne is 23rd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS finished 2nd and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS finished 3rd.(Photo Credit: HHP/Christa L. Thomas for Chevrolet)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS celebrates his win Saturday, April 12, 2014 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. Harvick is 22nd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS finished 2nd and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS finished 3rd. (Photo Credit: HHP/Tami Kelly-Pope for Chevrolet)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS celebrates his win Saturday, April 12, 2014 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. Harvick is 22nd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS finished 2nd and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS finished 3rd. (Photo Credit: HHP/Christa L. Thomas for Chevrolet)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, lead the field to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, leads the field to start the NASCAR Nationwide Series VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway on April 11, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS won the Pole position Friday, April 11, 2014 for Saturday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. Harvick is 26th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo Credit: HHP/Tami Kelly-Pope for Chevrolet)
Kevin Harvick (Photo Credit: NASCAR)
Stewart-Haas Racing team co-owner Gene Haas (Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Stewart-Haas Racing team co-owner Gene Haas (Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Damage to the winshield of Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Spring is Calling Chevrolet, is repaired on pit road during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 7, 2014 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

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